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First half of college season provides wealth of stories

by John Manuel
April 17, 2004

For the NCAA, the end of basketball season means it's baseball season.

The NCAA provides no national statistics until after both the men's and women's Final Fours have ended. And because the NCAA gets so much revenue from the men's basketball tournament, it promotes basketball to the exclusion of other sports until hoops season is over.

Of course when the Final Fours are done, baseball's season is really at its midway point. Conference play has begun in virtually every league. The NCAA tournament race has heated up, and the road to Omaha has started to take shape.

For those in the NCAA who need an update on what has been going on in the college baseball season up to this point, we present our annual Midseason Update. Here are the top five stories those paying too much attention to hoops have missed:

Dream Weaver

In his first two seasons at Long Beach State, Jered Weaver showed signs of greatness, going a combined 22-8, 2.82 with 218 strikeouts in 226 innings. In his junior season of 2004, though, Weaver has defined greatness at the college level.

He has dominated opponents with uncanny control of his 89-94 mph fastball, while also using a curveball, slider and changeup. He's not flashy; his 6-foot-7 frame evokes Big Bird more than Mark Prior or Nolan Ryan, and so does his shock of blond hair and whirly, arms-and-legs delivery.

The combination of plus stuff, a deceptive delivery and diligent preparation in between starts have moved him to second in Long Beach State history in career wins (31, two off the record) and strikeouts. His 100 strikeouts thus far this season were 22 more than his nearest competitor, and he had walked but nine.

Whether his pitches grade out as big league pitches is a question for another day. So far in 2004, no collegian has performed more like a pro than Jered Weaver.

League Of Its Own

The annual debate about which is the nation's best conference will be a short one this season. The Southeastern Conference, annually the country's deepest and most competitive, is at its best since the league produced seven College World Series teams in 1997-98.

Louisiana State and South Carolina have returned large chunks of the teams that reached Omaha in 2003, while Mississippi, Tennessee and Vanderbilt have taken significant strides forward. No team in the conference other than Mississippi State (17-10, 3-6) can be said to be having a "down" year.

And its timing couldn't be better. Last year, the SEC set a precedent when ninth-place Florida, which didn't qualify for the SEC tournament, nevertheless received an at-large regional bid. What's next? How about a record nine SEC teams come tourney time this year? Dare we say 10?

To this point, the league has at least nine teams that look worthy of consideration for the 34 at-large regional bids, and the league's RPI is guaranteed to be lofty. SEC teams are dominating outside competition to the tune of an .824 winning percentage in 238 games (196-43).

Of course, SEC teams are just 9-10 in games against the nation's other power conferences--the Atlantic Coast, Big 12 and Pacific-10. But the SEC should benefit from an off year in the ACC, which might struggle to field five teams worthy of regional bids.

. . . And They Will Come

Signs of college baseball's increased popularity continue to grow, from increased attention from the major league draft to greater television exposure. The most tangible signs, however, are the fans flocking to games.

On March 11, San Diego State and Houston met at Petco Park, the new home of the San Diego Padres. The game between the alma mater of Padres owner John Moores and his adopted hometown's largest school drew a record crowd of 40,106, breaking the two-year-old record of 27,673 set at the Louisiana Superdome by Louisiana State and Tulane.

Many other schools (such as Kansas State, Southern Mississippi and Vanderbilt) have surged in attendance, but none like Southwest Missouri State, which opened the new Hammons Field on April 2 against Southern Illinois. The $30-million ballpark opened to rave reviews and record attendance of 9,107 for its opener.

Arms Race

Jered Weaver isn't the only pitcher making college hitters look bad. Rice's trio of Philip Humber, Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend has continued to render metal bats useless, the same way they did in leading the Owls to the 2003 national championship. The trio was a combined 17-3, 1.92 with 206 strikeouts in 164 innings.

As a three-man rotation, the Owls remain without peer. However, Weaver and Dirtbags lefthander Cesar Ramos (5-2, 1.77) make for a lethal duo, as does the pairing of Central Florida righthanders Kyle Bono and Matt Fox, who are 13-0, 1.22 between them with a 134-30 strikeout-walk ratio in 110 innings.

Promise Fulfilled

We told you this would happen. We knew Tim Corbin, Brian O'Connor and John Savage, if given a chance, would make excellent college head coaches.

Even we didn't know it would happen this quickly. Savage was first to get a head coaching job, as the former Southern California assistant took over the resuscitated program at UC Irvine. In their third season, the Anteaters are poised not just to reach regional play, but to possibly be a No. 1 seed.

Corbin (then at Clemson) and O'Connor (Notre Dame) were the second and third recipients of the BA/American Baseball Coaches Association Assistant Coach of the Year award. Each subsequently took over a program of his own, Corbin at Vanderbilt and O'Connor Virginia. Corbin, in his second season, has the Commodores eyeing a regional berth for the first time since 1980, while O'Connor's first Cavaliers team was 8-4 in the ACC despite having played three of its first four series on the road.

Sometimes, we don't hate to tell you we told you so.

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